THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1996)
THE POLITICS OF VIOLENCE

Contending Nationalisms in the Macedonian Controversy
Anastasia Karakasidou

On Thursday, 14 September 1995, the New York Times and the international diplomatic community celebrated the conclusion of an agreement between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) that, it was widely hoped, would end a lingering dispute that has caused political polarization and ideological fanaticism among and between citizenry of the two countries. The controversial issue of the status of Macedonia, its history, and the relationship of contemporary Slavic-speakers in northern Greece to both the ancient and the modern Macedonian state has received some degree of attention in the international media, especially after violent civil conflict began to plague the former Yugoslavia. Yet there has been little public understanding or appreciation of the extent to which violence and aggression have played a role in the local-level political dominance of particular social groups in this region of the southern Balkans. More to the point, few have considered the potential consequences that may yet arise as acutely nationally conscious Greeks turn to increasingly violent forms of political expression in order to retain their sovereignty over this multi-ethnic region on the borders of Greece and the FYROM. Despite the apparent move towards a negotiated resolution of the Macedonian controversy at the level of international diplomacy, the danger of violent aggression remains clear and present at the local level. In fact, as I will explain below, in the course of researching national conflict over the Macedonian issue, I myself was obliged to confront the sometimes highly emotional response this controversy has fueled in Greece.

Under the diplomatic accord mentioned above, the FYROM agreed to change its flag and to modify provisions in its constitution pertaining to national brethren living in neighboring states. In return, Greece promised to lift its unilateral economic embargo of the FYRO, which was imposed in February 1994 and has contributed to growing social and economic difficulties in that country. The two states, however, have yet to reach an understanding over the name "Macedonia," and each continues to claim that it alone is the legitimate descendant of the ancient Macedonian state and therefore the sole rightful bearer of the glory of the ancient Macedonians. It is significant that issues of politically motivated violence, cultural or ethnic discrimination, or bias acts of aggression were not topics of discussion at the international negotiating table. Yet it is from these very issues, where expressions of ethnic plurality clash with the interests of national homogeny and state sovereignty, that the most immediate and most realistic potential exists for large-scale violence in the southern Balkans.

A few days after the agreement between Greece and the FYROM was signed, Greek police in Florina, a town near the northwestern border with the FYROM that has been a focus of my HFG research, forcibly removed an office sign from outside the local headquarters of an opposition political party associated with the (not officially recognized) Slavo-Macedonian ethnic group. They did so, ostensibly, because it contained Cyrillic (i.e., Slavic) lettering, which is often regarded in Greece as somehow threatening to national solidarity and which was once even outlawed during the Metaxas dictatorship of the 1930s. Local leaders of the political party faced criminal charges and the party's offices were set afire by zealous Greek nationalists.

Expressions of Slavic cultural or ethnic distinctiveness are still not tolerated in northwestern Greece, nor anywhere in Greece for that matter. Slavic-speakers in the Florina district who talk openly about such differences are still labeled by Greek nationals as traitors, specifically as "Skopians," a derogatory term used in reference to the FYROM and its inhabitants. Such individuals continue to be marginalized in the economic life of the region, many facing discrimination in the job market. At the same time, cross-border interaction and exchange among the region's Slavic speakers, including those living in Greece but with relatives in the FYROM, is discouraged. To this day, those who cross the Greek-FYROM border are reported to Greek security agencies. In the summer of 1994, a dance group from the FYROM was invited to attend and perform at a festival in the Florina Prefecture of Greece, but was prevented by Greek authorities from entering the country. During the incident, a Greek customs officer working at the border crossing drew his revolver and in heated anger threatened to shoot an individual attempting to videotape the confrontation. Patriotic Greek sentiment in this region has increased in magnitude since my first visits to the area several years ago and is currently adopting a dangerously aggressive rhetoric. It is now not uncommon to hear Greek nationals in the region speaking of Slavs in Greece by saying, "We will kill them all" or "We will wipe them out." There is a growing military presence in some villages as well.

At the same time, there has also been a rise in pro-FYROM Macedonian national identification and sentiment among Slavic-speakers in Greece. This has likewise been accompanied by vocal complaints about past grievances as well as an aggressive rhetoric of ethnic hatred. Old disputes are being revisited, and horror stories of ethnic persecution during the Greek Civil War (1947-1949) are reviving in popular discourse. The denial on the part of the Greek government that a Slavic cultural or ethnic group exists in the northern region of the country has no doubt accentuated the frustration of many Slavo-Macedonian inhabitants of northern Greece. The once relatively benign belief of the latter that their differences with Greeks were cultural in character is now rapidly being superceded by growing popular conviction that these are political issues, linked to one's sense of national identity and belonging. Pro-FYROM Slavic-speakers in Greece have also adopted increasingly provocative expressions of cultural difference with Greek nationals. Yet my research has suggested that, while nationalist activists in the FYROM share a great deal of responsibility for exporting politicized concepts of Macedonian national identity into Greece and propagating them among the region's Slavic-speakers, the policies and actions of Greek government authorities share some responsibility for growing alienation between ethnic Greeks and Slavo-Macedonians.

Thus, while on the international level the Macedonian controversy seems to be nearing a resolution, on the local level the gap between groups and individuals seems to be widening even further. In a significant recent development, Greeks and Slavo-Macedonians in the Florina area have begun to hold separate festivals and religious celebrations, such as saints' feasts. Generally speaking, mixed marriages have become plagued by increasing problems, and the number of such marriages is declining (a trend also witnessed in Bosnia prior to the escalation of civilian violence there). With increasing frequency, problems and disputes are erupting within individual families over the Macedonian issue, generating rifts between parents and children as well as between siblings. Land disputes have come once again to the forefront of many public confrontations. Religion has come to take an increasingly prominent role in the politics of identity in Greek Macedonia, as many Slavo-Macedonians in Greece have come to associate themselves with the Old Calendrists, a sect of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Road blocks and police checkpoints along major thoroughfares are common, as Greek authorities have begun to check travelers for identity papers. Although such actions have been prompted primarily out of concerns arising from the recent influx of "illegal" seasonal laborers from Albania, they have done little to ease a growing sense of frustration and resentment among Slavic-speakers in the area. For the first time since the Greek Civil War, people are defining identity, their descent, and their history with aggressive passion.

It has been through the efforts of concerned scholars such as myself and several others that the Greek government came to realize the absurdity of the impassioned nationalism it had fostered around the Macedonian controversy during the last few years and finally agreed to meet at the negotiating table to settle this international dispute. Yet it is also clear that on the level of everyday experience, verbal aggression and physical violence continue to haunt the population and may yet erupt in violent confrontation if these dangerous conditions persist. I have also conducted comparative research on the Muslim minority in Greek Thrace (the region bordering on Turkey), where a similarly tense situation exists as well. There, the insistence of Greek authorities that the minority population is composed of "Greek Muslims," rather than ethnic Turks, has already led to serious and direct violent confrontations. In August 1995, Dr. Ahmet Sadik, a well-respected political leader among the Muslim minority (and a former elected representative to Greek parliament), was killed in an automobile accident, fueling speculation of an assassination conspiracy.

The Balkans are once again in flames, full of both heroes and assassins, and the potential for violent confrontation in Greece is a real one. NATO's involvement in Bosnia has been portrayed by the mass media in Greece (a NATO member state) as a conspiratorial war of Catholics and Muslims against Orthodox Christianity. Greece and Serbia, it is often said in Greece, are the only patriotic and truly historical states in the Balkans. While the Greek popular media applaud Russian ideological and material aid to Serbia as a holy effort to save endangered Christian Orthodoxy, they also portray the Vatican, NATO, the U.S., the EU, and the non-Orthodox Christian world in general as enemies and aggressors of a righteous and victimized Serbian people.

It is important, I believe, to address the relationship between the Greek-Macedonian conflict and that in Bosnia; history has shown that the problems of the Balkans cannot be resolved simply by redrawing borders or signing internationally negotiated treaties. Such measures failed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and have yet to prove permanent solutions for the crises of the present day. The only recourse against violence and armed conflict in this region is to promote economic exchange and cultural interaction, meeting head-on the rhetorical ideologies of racial purity that fill the heads of impassioned national patriots. Through my efforts in speaking and writing about the Macedonian issue I have attempted to pursue this challenge, although it has at times earned me the scorn of national patriots and the uncomfortable focus of their anger and threats. If this report strikes a pessimistic note, it is because I have come to witness personally the extent to which fanaticism has colonized the hearts and minds of people in the Balkans of all cultural backgrounds.


Anastasia Karakasidou is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queen's College of the City University of New York and an HFG grantee. Her book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

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